Northeast, Southwest Montana most at risk

With parts of Montana buried under record-breaking snow, is drought like last year’s even a possibility?

Well, yes.

Yes, we’ve had a cold, wet February, and parts of the state now have two to three times their normal moisture. Yes, we still expect a cold, wet month ahead.

But, just like last year, all that water might not stave off dry conditions in summer and fall.

“It’s the next eight weeks that will really determine where things go,” a state water expert told Montana legislators on March 5. “We’re right at that point where they could go either way.”

Yes, we even have more moisture now than the record-setting, epic flood year of 2011.

But Michael Downey, of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, reminded the Water Policy Interim Committee about last year, when the state had above-average moisture everywhere except the Musselshell-Judith drainage. Like he told the panel in January, the wrong combination of conditions — fast meltoff, heat and no rain — can change things quickly.

Last year, the Middle Fork of the Flathead reached its high point later than usual, on June 9. Overall, West Glacier got 40 inches of rain, well above its average of 29 inches.

“And yet, by September 1, they were evacuating West Glacier because it was all burning up,” Downey said.

That’s because after June, he said, the rain dwindled to nothing, and the place heated up.

Yes, he said, the Northern Rockies is a bright, wet spot in the West. But California is experiencing some of its driest conditions on record, and parts of Idaho, Oregon and Nevada are drier than usual. Downey thinks it’s still possible we’ll see drought conditions in the southwest part of the state — Beaverhead County for example — as well as far away from the mountains, in northeast Montana.

One reason: Summers are hot nowadays — consistently warmer in every recent summer than in the legendary hot summers of 1984 to 1988.

And all that snow? If things warm up quickly, with the ground still hard and cold, all that water will roll off and and not do us much good.

Downey said we’ll know more after April and May — or maybe after June.

So what should we prepare for in the short run? It looks like Montana this year could face floods AND drought.

If we get a mid- or late-March warmup, that water will pour off the mountains fast. Downey looked to the mid-90s, when Tenmile Creek outside Helena flooded in mid-March.

This year’s water also has to go somewhere.

“Frankly, it could warm up here in the next two weeks, and I think it’s fair to say that we’re probably going to see some flooding to one extent or the other,” he said. “But in terms of what kind of bearing that’s going to have on the summer, it’s really too early to tell.”

-Sanjay Talwani

Featured photo: Ponderosa pines cling to life last summer. (Photo by August Schield.)

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